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Review: 2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

Wednesday June 11th, 2014 at 8:66 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

By David Colman

Hypes: Impeccable Build Quality, Exceptional Utility
Gripes: Sluggish Throttle Response, Wide Spacing of Lower Gears

The 328d diesel powered wagon is something of a conundrum. It enjoys the trappings of a sport focused offering, yet doesn’t ultimately live up to the flamboyant promise of its appearance. With a base price of $42,950, it carries a reasonable premium of just $1,500 over that of the $41,450 petrol powered all-wheel-drive wagon. A quick gander at our diesel’s specification sheet would lead you to think that this wagon has everything it needs for quick travel, M Style. Start with the attention grabbing azure paint. Of the 13 wagon colors available this year, our test vehicle’s Estoril Blue Metallic finish ($550 extra) is the only one of the baker’s dozen limited solely to use on M Sport equipped wagons.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

A $3,580 M Sport group adds 18 inch model specific wheels, sport seats, aluminum hexagon interior trim, anthracite headliner, M steering wheel, aerodynamic exterior refinements and shadowline trim. The SensaTec seat material feels enough like leather to make you forego the $1,450 up-charge for Dakota Leather. Another $1,000 brings adaptive M suspension and variable sport steering. For a comparatively modest outlay of $49,275, this is the sportiest diesel wagon you can buy from BMW.

The wagon’s handling is faultless. The all-wheel-drive (xDrive) system allows the all weather Pirelli P7 tires (225/45R18) to secure such a tenacious pavement purchase that you hardly ever need resort to BMW’s standard Dynamic Stability Control or Dynamic Traction Control. The balance and poise of this 3 Series platform encourages you to explore its handling attributes by switching the M Sport’s Driving Dynamics Control into the “Sport+” setting. Sport+ eliminates Dynamic Stability Control from the handling equation, thus allowing you to experiment with adhesion limits. You never entirely forget that with its weight distribution split of 48.7% f/51.3% r, this all-wheel-drive wagon has slightly more tail to wag than any other 3 Series offering.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

But xDrive’s full time all-wheel-drive traction helps overcome that rear weight bias. This BMW accelerates through switchbacks effortlessly. Never so much as a chirp of protest is heard from the scrabbling Pirellis. Instead of losing speed through chicanes, the wagon maintains its footing and composure better than you do. With its comparatively low center of gravity, the 328d upholds the concept of sports driving better than any jacked up BMW Sports Activity Vehicle. And best of all, you pay only a 10 pound weight penalty for selecting xDrive over rear-drive (3,790 pounds vs. 3,780 pounds).

The performance conundrum’s negative facet reveals itself when you toe into the diesel, expecting acceleration to match the explicit handling. Most of the time, you don’t get it. One of the most disconcerting drawbacks of the diesel is its reluctance to respond to your toe the instant you floor the throttle from a standing start. Although BMW’s lists a 0-60mph time of 7.6 seconds for the 328d xDrive, you’d be well advised to avoid maneuvers that require instant engine response. On the other hand, one of the main attractions of diesel motivation is stellar fuel consumption. In this regard, the 328d posts gratifying EPA numbers: 31 MPG, city, 43 MPG versus highway. The combined city/highway figure is 35 MPG, and cruising range is 645 miles with a 15 gallon tank.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

Another enticement is the aft cargo area, which offers multiple storage options. This wagon will allow you to slip a fully assembled bicycle into the cargo hold. All you have to do is drop both rear seats flat, remove the net partition and cargo cover struts, and you have unimpeded access to 53 cubic feet of storage space. The standard power operated hatchback door eases loading chores, as does the tailgate’s separate flip open rear window.

Normally overlooked back seat passengers will rejoice in the comfort of conveyance here. The rear seats are well contoured for long journeys. A drop down central armrest serves as a double drink caddy, while both front seat backs contain storage pockets with netting. Floor mounted rear ventilation ducts allow for individual climate tailoring, separate reading lights illuminate each outboard position, center seat belt receptacles store out of the way when unneeded, and rear windows retract fully into the doors.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

The diesel sports wagon provides a fully inhabitable environment for four, with more than enough luggage storage (13 cubic feet with rear seats up) for a comfortable overnight trip. For families, this car is an ideal transit solution. For speed merchants, it has its own galaxy of challenges to offer and conquer. There’s very little you can throw at it – or in it – that the 2014 328d xDrive can’t handle. And done up in Estoril Blue, this slinky beauty is sublimely easy on the eyes.

2014 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon

  • Engine: 2.0 Liter inline 4 Diesel, turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 180hp
  • Torque: 280lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 31 MPG City/43 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $49,275
  • Star Rating: 8 out of 10 Stars

Posted in BMW, Expert Reviews, Feature Articles |Tags:, , , , || 1 Comment »


Review: 2014 Ford Fiesta ST

Tuesday June 10th, 2014 at 11:66 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Ford Fiesta ST

By David Colman

Hypes: Porsche Performance at Motorbike Price
Gripes: Why Carp?

Drivers who still consider a car to be a precision tool rather than a blunt appliance will rejoice that Ford is into the second year of production for the sublimely satisfying Fiesta ST. With its affordable base price of just $21,400, this five door, five passenger hatchback is a slam dunk choice for any automotive enthusiast needing more than two seats. Few competitors in this price range come close to matching the sheer joy of driving the ST on a winding back road. VW’s soon to be introduced seventh generation GTI, the hot hatch that started the whole craze back in 1984, will carry a window sticker of $24,395. For that kind of money, you can afford to upgrade the Fiesta ST with the $1,995 optional Recaro seats and still beat the bottom line of VW’s standard bearer by a hundred bucks. The other main contender in this sporting market niche is Honda’s Civic Si, with a base price of $22,405 and a 201hp engine that overpowers the front wheel drive system.

Despite the fact that the Fiesta ST’s turbo motor makes 197hp, you rarely encounter torque steer. This is a beautifully balanced platform designed to handle the instant shove provided by the turbo four’s 202 pound-feet of torque. Although you have 6 gears to select in either manual or automatic gearbox form, the ST’s turbo spools up so fast that gear choice is almost irrelevant. Still, it is a pleasure to stir the cogs with a slick, short throw linkage that facilitates travel from gate to gate. The manual transmission is finely tailored to enhance the driving experience. Just as finely tailored are the optional and expensive Recaro front seats, which afford full upper torso support unmatched by any other economy sedan. Strap into these ribbed cloth beauties and you’ll feel like you’re about to take the starting flag at Le Mans.

2014 Ford Fiesta ST

While this hot hatch’s race breeding might leave you starry eyed, don’t overlook the fact that the ST is still a Fiesta, with all of that car’s innate useful virtues. For example, you’ve got 4 doors to ease entry to all 5 seating positions. You’ve got more green house glass than the Crystal Palace, so visibility in all directions is superb. Ford even throws in a rear window wiper at no extra cost and contributes heated front seats for the same price (free). Our test sample boasted a negligibly expensive ($795) navigation system with rather rudimentary graphics. But there’s nothing basic about the Sony premium audio system that’s standard ST fare, or the similarly standard automatic temperature control that lets you dial cabin comfort without taking your eyes off the road. Try pricing these niceties on some of the German competition, and you’ll quickly realize what a cozy financial package the ST represents.

2014 Ford Fiesta ST

Back in the 1960s, Chrysler Corporation was notorious for devising unforgettably named muscle car colors like Plum Crazy. Ford has happily extended that playful tradition with our Fiesta ST’s jarring shade of ($595 optional) Envy Green. Imagine a fresh lime dissolving in a sea of amber Corona beer and you get the idea of Green with Envy. Few cars in any price range own such visual bragging rights. And in the sub $30,000 category, blatant eye currency is virtually unattainable. But Envy Green just laughs at such preconceived expectations.

Better yet, this turbo terror’s performance exceeds even the vaunted promise of its flamboyant appearance. No bend is too tight to devour, no straight too short to gobble. Equipped with summer-use-only Bridgestone RE 050A Potenza rubber (205/40R17), the ST will slither through a slalom as fast as you can crank its fat rimmed steering wheel from lock to lock. And between those corner apexes, the turbo lights its afterburner so quick that you’ll find yourself dealing with the next apex Right Now. Although the ST masquerades well as a family conveyance, with all of those doors and seats, storage and conveniences, its true merit lies in its exceptional handling. If you’re looking for a practical hatchback but secretly hanker for something to autocross or time trial at track days, look no further than the Fiesta ST.

2014 Ford Fiesta ST

2014 Ford Fiesta ST

  • Engine: 1.6 liter GTDI inline 4, Turbocharged
  • Horsepower: 197hp
  • Torque: 202lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 26 MPG City/36 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $25,580
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Ford |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2014 BMW 428i Coupe

Monday June 9th, 2014 at 1:66 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 BMW 428i Coupe

By David Colman

Hypes: Extra Sensory Handling, Primo Front Seats, To Die For Looks
Gripes: Needs Rear Wiper, Chintzy Manual Steering Wheel Adjuster

Q: When is a 3 a 4? A: When a 1 becomes a 2.

Inside BMW’s perplexing name lab, Bavarian linguists have labored mightily to concoct a brave new numbering system sure to confuse and baffle its customer base. This year, the former 1 Series morphs into the new 2 Series, while the coupe and convertible offerings of the former 3 Series have now become 4 Series products. All this from a company once forthright enough to label its 1600cc sedan as a “BMW 1600.”

Call the new 4 Series what you will, there’s no mistaking its sporting excellence. Not surprisingly, the new 4 covers the dimensions of the existing 3 like a blanket. Overall length remains at 183 inches, as does wheelbase at 111 inches. Thanks to the coupe’s svelte roofline, height drops from 56 to 54 inches, while flared fenders cause the width to increase from 71 to 72 inches. Weight drops by 15 pounds, from 3,485 pounds to 3,470 pounds.

2014 BMW 428i Coupe

Take advantage of the coupe’s wider stance by maximizing rim size. You can do so by opting for the $3,500 “M Sport” package, which confers, among other benefits, a set of double-five spoke, 18 inch diameter M Sport performance alloys that stretch rim width to 8 inches front and 9 inches rear. These rims amply support premium Bridgestone S001 RFT (Run Flat) rubber measuring 225/45R18 front and 255/40R18 rear. Another dividend of the M Sport group is Adaptive M Suspension, a center console controlled system that allows you to select the shock setup you desire by sliding the “Driving Experience Switch” through 4 detents (Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+). These options cover the range from green peace to racetrack, and the differences are immediately obvious in terms of steering feedback and bump damping.

Visually, the M Package will also win you over with revamped body panels that channel wind over the coupe’s exterior surfaces most efficiently. To that end a revised front fascia eliminates the standard lower fog lamps in favor of increased radiator cooling grills. Normally convex rocker panels acquire intricate concave flutes that help shed boundary layer air currents. If these external clues are so subtle as to provide insufficient gratification, you can always derive satisfaction from plentiful M notations festooning your key fob, dead pedal, threshold plates, and lower steering wheel spoke.

2014 BMW 428i Coupe

The most beneficial contribution of the M Sport group is a pair of stellar front sport seats that will grab your torso faster than Velcro. These supremely enveloping twin buckets offer more lateral support than anything short of a full race DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft)throne. The most telling point of support is their vise grip on your mid-back area. The retention of this vice can be altered by easing off the “Backrest Width” control located alongside the outboard lower cushion. You’ll also discover controls for lumbar support, height, backrest tilt, seat tilt, plus a manual slide for thigh support. The front seats leave absolutely nothing on the table in terms of adjustability, conformity or comfort. We spent 9 hours in the cockpit of this coupe during a prolonged foray from the Bay Area to the Sierra foothills without registering a single complaint about cockpit fit.

2014 BMW 428i Coupe

On that same trip we also managed to record 33.5 MPG on a prolonged freeway stint while averaging 75mph. The EPA suggests that the 4 cylinder turbocharged 428i will return 35MPG on such highway drives, and this figure is undoubtedly attainable by reducing speed to 65mph. Overall gas consumption is EPA rated at 26MPG, with 22MPG on tap in city conditions. The intercooled 4 cylinder engine utilizes a pair of small diameter turbochargers to boost performance while maintaining parsimonious fuel burn. You will never find yourself at a loss for forward bite with this coupe. Flooring the throttle launches the 428i on an impressive trajectory that achieves 60mph from a standing start in 5.3 seconds, the quarter mile in 14.1 seconds at 99mph, and a top speed of 158mph. That top speed is attainable in M Sport equipped coupes where normal top speed limitations are eliminated.

In a world where the meanest, least expensive Korean import coddles you with standard niceties like heated seats and navigation, it comes as a bit of a rude shock not to find BMW follow suit. For example, the steering wheel, albeit M-grip thick, must be manually dropped, elevated and telescoped. If you desire heated seats, they can be yours, providing you ante up an extra $635 for the Cold Weather Package. Likewise, BMW will gladly provide a navigation system as long as you check off the $2,885 Technology Package on your order form. All these enhancements we’ve come to expect as standard items on much less expensive cars will cost you dearly at BMW. But no amount of free inclusions can ever compensate you for an inferior driving experience. If you’re after the consummate stint behind the wheel, there is nothing like this BMW.

2014 BMW 428i Coupe

2014 BMW 428i Coupe

  • Engine: 2.0 Liter inline DOHC 16 Valve 4, Turbocharged and Intercooled
  • Horsepower: 240hp @ 6000rpm
  • Torque: 255lb.-ft. @ 1250rpm
  • Fuel Consumption: 22MPG City/35MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $48,075
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in BMW, Expert Reviews, Feature Articles |Tags:, , , || 4 Comments »


Review: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Friday June 6th, 2014 at 1:66 PM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

By David Colman

Hypes: Torque Master, Low Price, Nice Finish Level
Gripes: Needs Plus 1 or 2 Tires and a Rear Wiper

If you’ve ever owned a Volkswagen product, you’ll instantly understand the nostalgic appeal of this latest diesel powered Jetta. From its taut seats to its logical control array, to its bank vault fit and finish, this product distills years of VW tradition into a seductive new package that’s not only affordable ($25,545) and economical (42MPG/ highway), but fun to drive as well.

Even the diesel engine rekindles VW nostalgia, since the very first Rabbit the company built and sold 35 years ago in the USA was available with diesel power. Having driven that Rabbit back in the late 1970s, I can testify that diesel technology has advanced from its Ice Age to its Golden Age. Although the Jetta’s current 2 liter, four cylinder diesel produces only 140hp, the real wallop comes in the torque department, where this TDI (“Turbocharged Diesel Injected”) power plant twists the front wheels to the tune of 236 lb.-ft. of thrust.

You can look high and low in VW’s cupboard for another 4 cylinder engine that matches this diesel for torque. Even the vaunted GLI 2.0 liter turbo gas motor makes just 207 lb.-ft. of torque. The rest of the Jetta engine offerings don’t even come close to matching the diesel. For example, the base 2.0 liter gas motor makes just 125 lb.-ft., and the soon to be phased out 2.5 liter inline 5 cylinder gas motor, which is available only in the Sport Wagon this year, makes 177lb.-ft. of torque.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

In effect, this abundance of torque makes your job as a driver less demanding and more fun. You really need not worry about which gear ratio the DSG automatic 6-speed has selected, because there’s always enough grunt from the diesel to pick up the slack. Of course, if you enjoy stirring the pot on your own, DSG encourages you to do so by offering a manual gate that accommodates sporting override by the driver. No paddles on the steering wheel, however, and you need to remember that the diesel runs through its power band rather quickly and never needs to be wound past 4,000rpm.

The long standing appeal of the Volkswagen family lies in the fact that no matter which model you choose, you can rest assured that the furniture in the living room will be arranged the same basic way. There’s a lot to be said for such predictability in layout, instrumentation and touch surfaces. Familiarity is a strong point that keeps long time VW owners coming back to update their Wolfsburg fix. For example, you can depend on the fact that VW will always offer easily grasped, knurled knobs to control such cockpit essentials as fan speed, temperature setting and vent positioning. You’ll never find this company resorting to the ineffectual slide type digitized controls that have proliferated in so many Japanese products today. VW has also been loath to jump on the bandwagon celebrating the advent of lane departure warnings and cross traffic alerts. Kudos to this company, which still feels that the driver should play the central role in the operation of the vehicle.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Of course, there are a few shortcomings that the owner of a TDI will want to address. The first issue is this Jetta’s diminutive tire size. Though equipped with handsome 16 inch, 5-spoke alloy rims, the accompanying 205/50R16 Continental Sport Contact tires look grossly undersize on this vehicle. While these tires ride quietly and afford excellent comfort, their modest tread width limits the performance of the Jetta when tackling back roads aggressively. Remedy this problem by upgrading to wider tires mounted on 17 or 18 inch rims. In fact VW offers 17 inch factory “Goal” alloys with 225/45R17 all season tires for $1,125 extra. Or you can bump up to 18 inch VW “Motorsport Alloy” rims and tires for $1,400. One thing this Jetta needs that is unavailable from the factory, however, is a rear window wiper to clear that flat, expansive pane of back glass when it rains or mists. But all in all, the short list of needs here is far outweighed by the many virtues of this efficient, affordable and handsome family sedan.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI

  • Engine: 2.0 Liter inline 4 cylinder turbocharged diesel
  • Horsepower: 140hp
  • Torque: 240 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 30 MPG City/42 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $25,545
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Volkswagen |Tags:, , , , || No Comments »


Review: 2014 Ford Focus 4-Door Titanium

Monday June 2nd, 2014 at 8:66 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Ford Foucs 4-Door Titanium

By David Colman

Hypes: Great Directional Stability in Rain
Gripes: Tight Rear Seat

Ford has mastered the art of building a cheap car that doesn’t feel cheap. You won’t find any telltale signs of penny pinching when you drive a Focus. The charcoal leather trimmed front seats envelop you so hospitably that three hour sittings pass without complaint. Standard five stage seat heaters ease the journey at no extra expense. Ford has crammed the standard issue Focus with such thoughtful addenda as a tilt/telescope steering wheel, one touch drop of the driver’s window, remote fob lock and unlock, and push button start. Sony provides the excellent audio components, while Ford adds its own navigation unit for $795 extra. A rear view camera which displays its image on the large navigation screen is standard equipment. You’ll be pleased to discover that Ford provides easily modulated dual zone climate control at no extra charge, as well as power operated and heated exterior rear view mirrors complete with wide angle inserts and built-in puddle lamps.

2014 Ford Foucs 4-Door Titanium

Yet this extensive portfolio of goodies costs just $25,500, navigation upgrade included. The cabin of the Focus Titanium is so competently organized that you could easily drive this 2,995 lb. compact hatchback across the USA without hesitation or discomfort. Especially compelling are the 17 inch Cooper Zeon RS3-A mud and snow rated tires (215/50R17) which offer a premium combination of ride comfort and responsive handling. They especially earned their stripes during a scary torrential downpour on US 101 near Gilroy where they never lost their grip on the flooded pavement.

2014 Ford Foucs 4-Door Titanium

While the 160hp output of the Focus’ inline four cylinder motor may seem paltry on paper, in practice it’s more than adequate for zippy but economical forays. We were able to complete a week of Bay Area commutes plus a 120 mile jaunt from San Rafael to Monterey before refilling with a paltry 9 gallons of standard grade gas. Despite this remarkable fuel efficiency (overall EPA rating of 31 MPG), the Focus never felt underpowered. Ford has achieved a rewarding balance between economic operation and responsive engine performance.

If 160hp is not enough to light your wick, consider the Focus ST, which Ford turbocharges to produce 252hp – more than enough to spin the front tires off the rims. The ST Focus is available only with a 6-speed manual transmission. Our Titanium test car eased city driving with its 6-speed automatic gearbox which includes a “Sport” mode gate. When you slot the lever into “S,” you’re able to control up shifts and down shifts via a rocker switch inconveniently located on the shift knob. Although this method of gear override is fairly compliant with your wishes, it occasionally decides to up shift on its own with no provocation from you. This idiosyncrasy can prove inconvenient during passing maneuvers.

While Ford offers a 5-door hatchback Focus, we spent the week driving the conventional 4-door sedan version that combines a huge trunk with a 60/40 split-fold down rear seat that gives you almost as much storage space as the hatchback but with the added benefit of more privacy for your valuables. The amount of luggage the Focus trunk swallowed without protest was a real eye opener: 2 hard shell cabin trolleys, two large soft sided duffel bags, a hard shell large plastic storage bin, and numerous paper sacks stuffed here and there. No matter what we threw at the Focus, it obligingly accepted. All this despite the fact the Ford has positioned a large, space grabbing Sony sub-woofer along the right side flank of the trunk.

2014 Ford Foucs 4-Door Titanium

Although the rear seats are tight for adults, the Focus sedan would make an ideal companion for families with two sub teen children. For that quintessential foursome, the Focus offers just the right combination of interior space, ample hidden trunk storage, and economic propulsion to make it a prime candidate for the prime American garage.

2014 Ford Focus 4-Door Titanium

  • Engine: 2.0 Liter Inline 4 with Direct Injection
  • Horsepower: 160hp
  • Torque: 146 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 27 MPG City/37 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $25,500
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, Ford |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

Wednesday May 28th, 2014 at 9:55 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

By David Colman

Hypes: THE Japanese Army knife
Gripes: Needs more suds in the HP department

Attention Nike lovers. There’s now a car to take over when your athletic shoes just won’t do it. Subaru claims the Crosstrek is “equipped for play and built for doing.” There’s more truth to that evaluation than you’ve come to expect from automotive advertising. With a static ride height of 8.7 inches, all wheel drive, and nubby Yokohama Geolander tires (225/55R17), the Crosstrek is a legitimate off road tool, eminently well suited to outback forays, winter endeavors, and expeditions to the supermarket. Crosstrek certainly looks feral enough, with a hunched feline silhouette that’s about to pounce on the next strip of unexplored terrain. Inside, the Abercrombie & Fitch outfitting furthers the Indiana Jones illusion, with rough hewn cloth seats, ribbed rubber matting in the storage area, standard roof rail system, heated front seats, and rear hatch wiper/washer. If you select the Hybrid Crosstrek, which is a new offering from Subaru this year, you also get model-specific five spoke 17 inch diameter alloys that mimic the Fuchs wheels Porsche used as their trademark for over 30 years. Their simple design complements the heavily sculpted contours of the Crosstrek. To emphasize the green allure of the new Hybrid, our test Crosstrek sported an eye watering finish called Plasma Green Pearl that wore well as our week with the car wore on.

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

Operation of the Hybrid drive train is for the most part so seamless that you hardly know it’s present. Subaru has combined their FB20 4 cylinder engine with a 3 phase synchronous electric motor to provide 150hp and 165 lb.-ft. of torque. The opposed H- configuration gas engine features twin overhead cams, 10.8:1 compression ratio, and an under square bore/stroke ratio of 84mm x 90mm. The permanent magnet electric unit is good for 10kW output and 48 lb.-ft. of torque. Working together, the gas and electric powered Hybrid posts EPA numbers of 31 MPG overall. You can expect 39 MPG on the freeway, which will yield a tad over 500 miles on the Crosstrek’s 13.7 gallon fuel tank. In city usage (29 MPG), this Subaru automatically turns itself off when you’re stopped in traffic for more than 30 seconds, and usually re-fires without hesitation, though a jolt and shudder sometimes mars the procedure.

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

The internal layout of the Hybrid’s cabin is so functional that you wonder why so many manufacturers can’t emulate Subaru’s prowess in this regard. For example, take the rear seats here. Instead of making you search out hidden latches and mechanisms to fold them flat, the Crosstrek requires but one simple gesture to transform your interior from passenger to cargo trim. Pull up on the stem of an outboard mounted, visually obvious latch as you thrust the seatback forward, and presto, a flat floor cargo space manifests itself. No manual needs to be thumbed through, no obscure fold and tumble sequence needs to be followed. Removing the privacy screen which shields the rear space from prying eyes is equally simple when you’ve got big loads to carry. Just depress one end of the light weight stick, and the spring inside holding it in place instantly collapses, allowing you to store the part elsewhere. I recently struggled to collapse a similar unit in a Dodge Durango with such an overpowering spring that it refused to budge. The beauty of Subaru engineering is that it makes it simple tasks effortless.

With that ample ride height, you might think the Crosstrek would be somewhat tipsy in normal motoring tests, but you’d be wrong. This crossover handles the curves with aplomb, and you’re almost never aware of your exalted height. The Yokohama Geolanders are surprisingly complicit in upholding their end of the cornering bargain, and on the whole, the Crosstrek handles with the precision of a Nike Cross Trainer. The combined 150hp output of the drive train, however, leaves a bit more to be desired than the handling does. In passing or merging situations, you pretty much have to wring the Hybrid by the neck to extract enough surge to be comfortable. The CVT transmission, which Subaru pioneered a quarter century ago, is definitely your friend during such maneuvers, because paddles on the steering wheel allow you instant access to more rpm and more passing power. Still, this 3,165 pound Crosstrek’s gentle acceleration would benefit from a slightly larger displacement gas motor.

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

With a buy-in of just $26,820, it’s hard to beat the Hybrid Crosstrek for value, mileage, practicality and comfort. For “Just Do It” folks, the XV Crosstrek Hybrid is like finding a pair of Air Jordans at Ross Dress For Less.

2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid

  • Engine: 2.0 liter DOHC Opposed 4
  • Electric Motor: Permanent Magnet 3-Phase Synchronous
  • Horsepower: 150hp
  • Torque: 165 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 29 MPG City/39 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $26,820
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Expert Reviews, Feature Articles, hybrid, Subaru |Tags:, , , , || No Comments »


Review: 2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line

Tuesday May 27th, 2014 at 11:55 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line

By David Colman

Hypes: Stealth Bomber, Practical Yet Engaging
Gripes: Hood Stalk Can Cut You

Let’s say you love the endearing looks of the reincarnated Beetle, but you yearn for the performance of the Golf GTI. For 2014, VW has slipped the drive train and chassis of the outgoing GTI underneath the architecture of the Beetle, so you can look cute but go like a stink bug. The new code name for this potent combo is “R-Line,” a term formerly used to designate racing derived upgrades like flat bottom steering wheels and ribbed aluminum pedals. Now, VW has eliminated the “Turbo Beetle” name from its model range, in favor of the designation “Beetle R-Line.” When you lay down $32,030 for one of these, you get a 200hp GTI dressed in Bug clothing. The combination is a delight to drive.

VW stylists have revised the front and aft appearance of the Beetle R-Line by substituting stealthy looking new fascia and tail panels. The front splitter is now more angular, and the rear under tray features new diffusers. There’s also a massive back wing lurking just below the rear window, plus a bevy of R-Line identifiers on each side of the nose, at the base of the racy flat bottom steering wheel, and on both threshold kick plates. Visually engaging 10-spoke alloy rims hide cheeky red disc brake calipers. Gaping flared fender wells barely contain beefy 235/40R19 Continental ContiProContact tires at each corner. One look at the svelte Beetle R-Line is enough to remind you that VW runs a very competitive year long race series for these cars in Germany.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line

Yet once you’re seated inside the tidy cabin, it’s easy to slip into calm and casual motoring thanks to the DSG transmission’s fully automated assistance. Left to its own devices, the DSG 6-speed will seek out the highest possible gear and thus help you attain 24MPG in town driving and 26MPG overall fuel economy. Of course, you can always slot the DSG stick into its manual gate and make your own decisions about gear choice. Shifts in both directions are quick and crisp. VW provides a pair of tiny flippers behind the steering wheel to aid your gear changing, but I found it much more rewarding to knock the floor stick forward for down changes and back toward me for up shifts.

The turbo motor is so eager to spool up its 207 lb.-ft. of torque that it’s really easy to leave rubber when mashing the gas in the lower gears. When you do so, the front end of this Beetle lifts like a motor boat, steering response diminishes as the front tires lose adhesion, and the R-Line torque steers slightly as you struggle with the sudden surge of power. Although this VW may share looks with lesser Beetles, it’s really an adrenalin-inducing hot rod that’s an absolute blast to drive. The “Sport Suspension,” which is standard issue on R-Line Beetles, controls body lean in cornering, while still maintaining enough bump compliance to keep you comfortable. Such a compromise is a black art, and VW is well versed in the intricacies of the equation.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line

Given its low roofline and substantial tail spoiler, you might expect vision from the driver’s seat to be problematic. Such is not the case, since the wings lies flat enough to be invisible, and the view through the rear windows and excellent mirrors is good enough to allow freeway lane changes without hesitation. You could improve the direct rear sightline by removing the headrests from the rear seats, or folding them down until needed. While adequate for kids, the rear seats present painful entry, egress and seating prospects for adults. When you do fold the rear seats, the Beetle affords a surprising amount of storage space. In fact, a trip to Home Depot revealed that the interior dimension between the rear fender wells allows a 32 inch wide sheet of 48 inch long material to be comfortably accommodated. If not for the 3 inch intrusion of the Fender sub woofer in the trunk, you could slip a 3 foot wide sheet into the trunk flat.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line

The R-Line Beetle is very much the stealth bomber of VW’s flight group. It’s quietly handsome without being ostentatious. To looks at it, you’d never anticipate the level of performance it’s capable of doling out. Yet it’s one of the fastest cars on the open road, with enough performance reserve to make you smile broadly at the prospect of an early Sunday morning jaunt on an empty, twisty back road.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle R-Line

  • Engine: 2.0 liter turbocharged inline 4
  • Horsepower: 200hp
  • Torque: 207 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 24 MPG City/30 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $32,030
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Ford Fiesta SE

Monday May 26th, 2014 at 8:55 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

2014 Ford Fiesta SE

By David Colman

Hypes: Sporting Tendencies, Practical Interior, Gas Genie
Gripes: Lacks Rear Seat Legroom, Distracting Rear View “Spotter” Mirrors

The latest Fiesta is an undeniably handsome design, with its ground hugging snoot, upturned tail, and primly pursed Aston Martin copy grill imbuing it with unexpected flair. The only discordant note in the stylistic aria is struck by the 15 inch SE standard alloy wheels, which are visually swamped by spaciously flared wheel wells. It’s been a long time – 40 years to be exact – since a 185/60R15 tire was considered to be the hot setup in street rubber. It’s not that these Hankook Optimo H426 tires perform without merit, rather that they just don’t look the part on this otherwise up to date styling exercise. The only thing you’ll really appreciate about these tires is their cheap price when it comes time to replace them with new ones. But if this were my Fiesta, I’d upgrade it with Plus 1 (16″) or Plus 2 (17″) tire and wheel packages, either through Ford, which offers both, or via an aftermarket supplier. In either event, the new Fiesta will look more like something from the 21st century than an artifact from the groovy Sixties.

2014 Ford Fiesta SE

In addition to its cleanly sculpted body, the SE Fiesta offers the impecunious buyer a host of other, more practical advantages. Topping the list is its negligible purchase price of just $15,450. You can hardly buy a decent motorcycle these days for that amount. Our test SE’s electric “Blue Candy” tint added a negligible $395 to the bottom line. Its “Power Shift” 6 speed automatic transmission, a $1,095 extra, bumped the bottom line to $16,940, still a sensational deal in the automotive scheme of things today. I would forego the optional transmission in favor of the standard 5-speed manual, which is such a pleasure to operate that it makes the lightweight (2,665 lbs.) Fiesta feel even sportier than it really is. The manual gearbox facilitates ratio choice, a job which is rather a chore with the automatic, which lacks paddles, and requires use of a minute, stick-located toggle switch to swap ratios.

You won’t be overwhelmed by the passing power of the Fiesta’s 120hp, 1.6 liter four, which makes just 112 pounds of torque. On the other hand, you’ll love how long it takes to drain this Ford’s 12 gallon fuel tank. We zipped all over the Bay Area for a solid week before stopping to refuel, because the range on a single tank is nearly 400 miles at 32 MPG overall. On highway trips, you can run close to 470 miles before a recharge, since the Fiesta is good for 39 MPG on the freeway. Of course, your butt might give out before your fuel supply, because the cloth seats of the SE are pretty much entry level in terms of adjustability and comfort. Fore and aft travel is manual, as is seatback rake, which is inconveniently controlled by a lever shrouded by the shoulder harness. Steering wheel angle is also manually adjustable, but there is no provision for altering reach.

2014 Ford Fiesta SE

The rear seats are useless unless your Fiesta is full of occupants no taller than 5 feet. Even then, your rear passengers will have to duck their heads to climb aboard. Anyone 5’8″ tall will find a dearth of knee room back there, and just 1 inch to spare in headroom. On the other hand, the Fiesta is perfect for packing 2 adults up front and a pair of kids in back. Ford even provides seatbelts and headrest for a 3rd, center mounted victim in the rear seat. Even with a full load of 4 or 5, the sedan leaves you with a surprisingly spacious trunk of 12.8 cubic feet. If your cargo requirements call for more storage length, the rear seats flip down in a 60/40 split pattern, though you’ll need to remove the rear headrests prior to flattening the seats.

Because the Fiesta is so small and nimble, it’s unexpectedly fun to drive. Even in this mildest state of tune, the SE offers immediate throttle response when you’ve dialed up the proper gear ratio. The steering is refreshingly accurate, and you can really boogie on back roads in spite of the Hankook’s modest adhesion limits. If your interests tend more to sporty driving than basic transportation needs, Ford’s Fiesta product line includes the turbocharged ST with 17 inch rims and 197hp. But for most occasions, the base engine is more than adequate. It may be hard to believe, but for the price of an entry level Harley Davidson bike, you can buy a genuinely useful, economic and good looking little sedan that exudes value and versatility.

2014 Ford Fiesta SE

2014 Ford Fiesta SE

  • Engine: 1.6 liter DOHC Inline 4
  • Horsepower: 120hp
  • Torque: 112 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 29 MPG City/39 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $17,735
  • Star Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

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Review: 2014 Dodge Durango Limited AWD

Friday May 23rd, 2014 at 7:55 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Spunky V6/8 Speed Transmission Combo, Easy Interior Reconfiguration
Gripes: Overdone Dashboard Chrome, No Power Lift Gate Closure

For 2014, Dodge has rejuvenated the appearance of the Durango with sprightly front and rear fascias that feature a floating crosshair grill insert upfront and sequential LED “racetrack” tail lights. Also new for this year is an 8-speed automatic gearbox controlled by a rotary shift selector located on the console between the front seats that takes some getting used to. We spent a week driving the Limited version, which is a new model for 2014. The Limited upgrades the base SXT level by including premium Capri leather interior, heated steering wheel, 8.4 inch dash stack touch screen, back-up camera with park assist, LED daytime running lights and 1 year of SiriusXM satellite radio. Base price for the rear wheel drive, V-6 powered Limited is $35,995. Add in the all wheel drive specification of our test vehicle and your starting price jumps to $38,395.

Additional option packages up the ante to $46,865. “Customer Preferred Package 23E” costs $2,395 for 20 inch polished aluminum wheels with 265/50R20 Goodyear Fortera tires, GPS navigation, HD Radio, and Power Lift Gate (which curiously does not provide automatic closure). A Rear DVD Entertainment Center adds $1,995. You’ll pop $995 for Trailer Tow Group IV which allows you to pull 6,200 pounds. The Safety, Security and Convenience Group costs $1,195 for Self Leveling Bi-Xenon Headlights, and a Power Tilt/Telescope Steering Wheel. Finally, $895 covers a comfy second row of Captain’s Chairs.

Even at this price, the Durango offers solid value for your money. Its gas efficient – 19 MPG overall – V-6 engine is a surprising screamer in the performance department, with that octet of gear ratios on hand to keep it operating at peak power (290hp, 260lb.-ft. of torque). There are, in fact so many gear sets on offer that the transmission sometimes stumbles during its self selection process. A couple of times it jerked inexplicably as it seemed to hunt for a lower gear at under 25 mph, and when cruise control is engaged, the 8 speed surprisingly downshifts all the way from 8th to 5th in order to retard speed on freeway hill descents. The rotary controller, however, which Jaguar has been using for years now, is a boon to interior ergonomics. It takes up almost no space on the center console, and flicks from detent to detent with ease. But since old habits die hard, you’ll find your right hand fluttering helplessly from time to time as you reach for the stick shift that isn’t there.

Dodge has taken great pains to refurbish the Durango’s interior with premium materials and plentiful benefits. The first thing you notice when climbing into the front row chairs is how comfortable they are. This comes as something of a pleasant surprise, since the American SUVs I’ve driven recently have fallen far short of this Durango’s comfort level. The rear seat area is particularly well equipped, with its pair of adjustable Captain’s chairs, wealth of leg space, overhead and floor vent outlets, and control panel for temperature, fan speed, and source of ventilation. The optional DVD center is particularly well integrated, with screens that fold unobtrusively into the backside of the front seat headrests, and A/V sockets built into those seats as well. Even the shallow floor console between the rear seats is thoughtfully constructed to allow drink holders without protruding high enough to interfere with goods storage when the seats are folded. Although this Durango will carry 6 adults in 3 rows, it can be quickly converted to truck duty by flipping the rear bench flat, then snapping the second row “Fold and Tumble” chairs shut. Even the front passenger seat back folds flat to accommodate extra long loads. These interior design permutations are ingenious, and easy to reconfigure.

Durango Limited offers a sweet ride quality by combining responsive handling with unexpectedly plush comfort. Steering response is outstanding. The Goodyear tires run quiet, the cabin is well insulated, and vision out of all quadrants is good enough to render the Limited’s standard back-up camera unnecessary. Only the chrome rings which surround all the front air vents prove distracting, especially when the driver’s side exterior mirror reflects the chrome ring instead of showing the traffic you need to see.

Dodge offers a sizeable number of Durango combinations, including a slightly more powerful V6 version called “Rallye” (295hp), and a substantially more lusty V8 Hemi model named “R/T” which quickens your pulse to the tune of 360hp and 390lb.-ft. of torque. But unless you’re planning to tow an 8,000 pound trailer, the R/T isn’t worth the fuel penalty you’ll pay of 14MPG in city driving versus 17 MPG for the Limited V6. In fact for everyday chores, the V6 Limited is as good an SUV as you’ll find for the money.

2014 Dodge Durango Limited AWD

  • Engine: 3.6 Liter Pentastar V6, 24 Valve with VVT
  • Horsepower: 290hp
  • Torque: 260 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 17 MPG City/24 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $46,865
  • Star Rating: 8.5 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Dodge, Expert Reviews, Feature Articles |Tags:, , || No Comments »


Review: 2014 Cadillac CTS 3.6L TT VSport Premium

Thursday May 22nd, 2014 at 9:55 AM
Posted by: D.Colman

By David Colman

Hypes: Vastly Improved Appearance, Superbly Comfortable
Gripes: Rear Wiper Needed

With the introduction of this second generation CTS, Cadillac has well and truly joined the ranks of the world’s elite producers of sports sedans. No more BMW M5 envy, no Audi S5 shortfall, no E Class Mercedes misgivings, the completely new CTS has hurdled the competition, and managed to do so for less money. V8 devotees can still buy the older style CTS-V this year, but if you’re after a “V” specification four door sedan, Cadillac offers only this twin turbocharged, 3.6 liter V6. Of course, compared to the 556hp supercharged V8 of the carryover CTS-V models, the 420hp V6 in the “CTS VSport” sedan may seem undernourished. On paper, that is. But out in the real world, the TT V6, coupled to a new 8 speed automatic transmission (unavailable in the CTS-V), is anything but feeble. First and best, when you flatten the accelerator, this sizeable luxury Pullman lunges forward, emitting an ethereal banshee wail from its spooled turbochargers. If you’ve selected manual shift mode by depressing the “M” button atop the stick shift lever, you can chose any appropriate gear ratio by clicking the large left steering wheel mounted magnesium paddle for down shifts or the matching right flipper for up shifts. The Cadillac transmission complies instantaneously, and does so while blipping the motor to match engine rpm to gear ratio choice on down shifts. The system is faultless save the need for a larger, centrally located gear indicator display in the driver information center.

Cadillac stylists have substantially improved the appearance of the new CTS compared to its predecessor. Gone are the original’s tired Origami folds, which looked revolutionary at introduction but shopworn today. The clean sheet design of the new sedan offers softer contours all around, with sweeping character lines defining the Cad’s newly elegant structure. Inside the spacious greenhouse, the look is all business, with black the predominant shade. Cadillac’s CUE (“Cadillac User Experience”) dash face is obsidian, slashes of carbon fiber grace the dash and door panels, and black vertically ribbed “performance” seats complete the Johnny Cash look. The medley works remarkably well at reducing unwanted reflections while providing all the right props for sporting driving. For example, your left foot will find itself firmly braced against an aluminum dead pedal that is rubber ribbed for traction. The center console contains a large, easily accessible “mode” button that allows you to select the appropriate combination of shock absorber resilience provided by GM’s superb magnetic ride control system As soon as you tap the mode button, a screen appears, asking you to select “Tour, Sport. Track, or Snow” setting. We chose “Tour” for most of our freeway jaunts, but elected “Track” when bashing back roads. And bash this brash Cad does well, with its ground hugging suspension eating bumps while its fat 275/35R18 Pirelli P Zero run flats never miss a chance to grab an apex. Cadillac is certainly not exaggerating the VSport’s capabilities by offering a “Track” setting for your ultimate driving enjoyment. Despite its sizeable girth and luxury fitments, the CTS VSport is perfectly suited to tackling Laguna Seca, or Sonoma Raceway. In fact, Cadillac officially acknowledges this benefit by outlining measures to improve the car’s track performance in the Owner’s Manual! For example, you are directed to improve brake cooling by removing the front brake splash shield and front tire deflector, and reminded that “removing the shield will require the suspension bushings visible to the brake disc be protected with insulated thermal wrapping.” Although GM recommends that you “See the Warranty Manual before using the vehicle for competitive driving,” I couldn’t find any warranty manual reference to such activity. Still, the very idea of Cadillac encouraging its owners to enjoy maximum performance potential of the VSport is revolutionary and very refreshing.

Even without the ultra powerful V8 that still motivates the ground shattering CTS-V, the VSport Cadillac is a superior vehicle in every way compared to its older sibling. The fact that you can now buy an American designed and constructed sports sedan that is actually superior to the stellar offerings from Germany is astounding. the fact that it also costs less than the Bavarian competition is even better yet.

2014 Cadillac CTS 3.6L TT VSport Premium

  • Engine: 3.6 Liter Twin Turbocharged V6
  • Horsepower: 420hp
  • Torque: 430 lb.-ft.
  • Fuel Consumption: 16 MPG City/24 MPG Highway
  • Price as Tested: $70,990
  • Star Rating: 10 out of 10 Stars

Posted in Cadillac, Expert Reviews, Feature Articles |Tags:, || No Comments »


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